How has the Lacey Act influenced the way you do business? A conversation with Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars

First off, Taylor Guitars supports Lacey and its intent. Of course, who doesn’t say they support Lacey? People announce their support whether they practice their statement or not. But, let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that none of us guitar makers were environmentalists, or cared about the world’s tropical forests. Of course, we are interested in our environment, but even if not, we would all agree that commercially, we are going to run out of our favored species of woods very soon, if, as a first world community, we do not work diligently to preserve these species! 

We saw Brazilian rosewood disappear from our grasp. Then Malagasy species like ebony and rosewood. Mahogany has been saved just in the nick of time. It seems our last large spruce trees can be counted on one hand. Why would any of us think that without a change of action our African ebony, Indian rosewood, and the like, last indefinitely? The time for action is now, whether we like it or not. Lacey addresses this by simply making it a law, that as a US business or citizen we must import only wood that was obtained legally in its country of origin. 

I agree that that is an ambitious idea; for our law keepers to enforce the laws of foreign nations. But drastic times need drastic measures and other means have not worked. The volunteer program hasn’t stopped illegal logging! Putting the rules on the buyer is the most efficient way to control the trade of illegal logging, and this is where Lacey is effective. It causes each user of wood to know and monitor their own imports. I don’t have to concern myself with the laws of countries where I don’t buy wood; only those where I do. It’s not that hard. In this way the U.S. Government gets me to work for them for free. If I were in charge of fixing the problem, I’d come up with the same solution. Ask yourself if you have a better idea. You probably don’t. 

What is the definition of illegal logging? Well, simply put, it means the wood was stolen; stolen from land that was not authorized to allow the wood to be taken. Either a citizen or a nation has had trees simply stolen from their property. I’ll ask you how you’d react if you went out one day and saw your tree cut and gone from your front yard, or backyard, from your own personal property. Or, if you owned a plot of forest in Montana where you like to fish and rest among your forest, and when you came back to fish, you found a swath of trees missing. I suggest you’d prosecute, to the full extent of the law, anyone proven to have been the culprit! I’d suggest you’d tell how you’ve been robbed. 

This is what Lacey is trying to stop: the cutting of trees from other people’s front yards, parks, or fishing spots or country’s forests. If trees are cut and taken, they need to be legally taken, with full agreement and recompense to the owners. We would want the same thing for ourselves. 

That said, here’s how Lacey has affected the way we do business at Taylor Guitars. It’s very simple. We now investigate the sources of our wood, and we ensure to the best of our ability that the wood was taken legally. We fill out the paperwork required and we present our business, as an open book. The cost isn’t so much for us. It’s not an unbearable added burden, and we’re happy to do the extra administrative work. 

There were some species, like cocobolo, that pre-Lacey, we purchased and post-Lacey we took a break from as we searched for dealers who could prove their wood was legal. Our previous supplier could not, so, in effect, before Lacey we were buying illegal cocobolo and were unaware. Lacey required us to become aware under penalty of U.S. law and it changed that particular buying habit for us. So, Lacey had a positive effect on us, because who knows when we would have switched sources for our cocobolo if Lacey had not been enacted? Today, we might have very well been in the possession of stolen goods, if I were to be harsh on myself, but Lacey caused us to be more diligent. 

It’s not all perfect, yet. I will take the opportunity to say that Lacey needs some changes, and the one I’m most interested in seeing is to limit Lacey to wood, or the first sale of a product. As it is, a guitar will have to pass Lacey for the rest of its existence. That means 40, 50, or 100 years from now if a guitar re-enters the US borders, the ‘importer,’ whether an individual or a business, will have to attest to its materials, (genus, species, and country of origin) which is impossible to do, and causes the buyer to break the law by not being able to do it. Yet, by requiring that of the buyer, the Lacey Act does not do a thing toward the goal of Lacey, but it does work to stop commerce of used and vintage musical instruments. Why would lawmakers want that consequence? I propose they don’t want that consequence and they should change it, now, not later. I’m harsh and steadfast in my opinion about that. 

Musical instruments are the best example of a product that is truly long-lasting. They are not smart phones, toasters, or plastic children’s toys, or beach chairs that last one season. They don’t break and get tossed into the heap. They last years and years, sometimes across the centuries, and re-instigate commerce with the one-time use of natural materials. They are truly the most green products one could conceive because of their longevity, and isn’t that what we all strive for in a product that is easy on the earth? 

A recent WSJ article tried to make the case for “the lack of crossover between environmentalists and musicians.” I fully reject that notion. We both want the same thing. Many people are both of those things. We are in a time of uncertainty because of the way Lacey has been written. The law needs work and they agree. The environmental groups are not after individuals, rather, environmental criminals; those in the wood business who break the laws purposefully. 

If you are a musician, please don’t worry about traveling with your guitar. You will pass, and you are not the droid they are looking for. My CFO recently was in Cameroon, one of the African countries where we work to source wood legally. She bought an African tom-tom, and was afraid to bring it home for fear of Lacey, so she left it behind. She was afraid of the negative impact for Taylor Guitars. I told her she shouldn’t have, and that if she were arrested or fined for it, for not being able to fill out genus, species and country of origin for her wooden drum, that she would have taken one for the team. I say that tongue-in-cheek, because the worst thing US Customs or FWS could possibly do right now is to apply Lacey to such a situation. That, today, in this press-hungry environment, would ignite a firestorm of outrage that would flow directly to Capital Hill. 

Nobody wants that. 

We can be musicians, environmentalists, businessmen and women, law-enforcement, and importers and users of wood, in this post-Lacey time. All of us can exist together and make the world work better than it was working. 

I’ll say it before and I’ll say it again. If I could take any user of wood, whether it be a guitar player, or a purchaser of a dining room table, with me, on a trip to the forest of 2011 in many, many parts of the world, and let them see with their own eyes the state of the forests and the people living in them, I’d stake my last dollar on the fact that they’d come home and preach with a loud voice how deforestation has got to be stopped! You have to see it to believe it, and if you haven’t seen it, with your own eyes, you can’t argue against it. Period. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. 

Any transition is a hard time. I often wonder how many people argued in the taverns and around the dinner table, or after church on Sunday, or wrote newspaper articles, in those times, about how letting women vote, or how abolishing slavery was going to ruin this country. Let’s keep that in mind as we cross this threshold into a new normal. We will survive it. 

Bob Taylor is the president of Taylor Guitars.  

Photo of Taylor guitar by Jean-Baptiste Bellet @Flickr (CC BY 2.0).